Family couch: Navigating conflict

By Jeff Strese

How to manage conflict. It's more art than science.


When we struggle with unresolved conflict, it is often caused by a flawed mindset. Your wants and needs vs. their wants and needs. This sets up the potential for a classic and timeless showdown between two parties. You may think your situation is particularly unique and hard for anyone to truly understand how you feel. Perhaps it is, but that 

doesn’t mean you have to remain in this unenlightened state. To pivot, it requires a change in mindset. Not when you emotionally feel ready, but when you thoughtfully adopt a learning mindset which generates curiosity and increased openness. In other words, sometimes you have to think your way through the root cause of the conflict until your emotions can catch up. As the old saying goes, emotions are real, they are just not reliable. You may be struggling with a sense of terminal uniqueness: "no one can possible understand how I feel and what I am going through”. This terminal mindset will only perpetuate high emotions. In this low state of awareness, we can only see our viewpoint filtered through emotions. Like an artist who only paints with one, muted color, we become one dimensional and lose the ability to adapt and cope. These emotional triggers keep us in a fixed mindset and inhibit our greatest interpersonal resource, our Emotional Intelligence. They rob us of objectivity – the psychological fuel needed to navigate difficult situations.

A third-person’s perspective:

So, when your wants and needs are not aligned with their wants and needs, there is another way forward. To pursue a win-win outcome, it requires us to develop a third person’s perspective. As if you could embody the viewpoint of a third, objective person to help provide a more balanced perspective of the situation. In the absence of having a facilitator or mediator present, family members can practice gaining this perspective through simple, re-calibration techniques. Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes isn’t just a folksy saying from your great grandparents: it is based on ancient wisdom. It means to fully consider someone else’s point of view and experience before passing judgement. This is something we all need to work in these changing, social times. This perspective will help de-escalate emotions, open pathways for expanded dialogue, and lay the groundwork for forgiveness and reconciliation.

The path forward:

Emotions and intent are the drivers of behavior. When conflict emerges, we are often swept up in the emotions of how people are treating us and can lose sight of their true intent. Most people in our lives don’t wake up in the morning and think to themselves, “Hmmm, how can I hurt your feelings today and really tick you off?” Consider the last time you a bad moment and sent an email you regretted. Or overreacted and treated someone you care about in a critical or unkind way. In those moments, none of us want our character judged in a harsh and unfair way. We want the other person to give us the benefit of the doubt.

You must be willing to get below the surface of the iceberg and seek to understand the intent behind another person’s behavior. Immediately assuming poor motive because their behavior was hurtful or caused you to feel angry can foster further conflict and pain. A commitment to this practice will help disarm tensions more quickly and lessen the chance of ruminating on assumptions.

Consider these steps to clarify intent:

Assigning Intent

Be clear about the story you’re telling yourself. Remember at least some of it is probably fiction, so create a story that allows for positive or neutral intent on their part. Give others the benefit of the doubt.

Managing Your Intent

Allow this new narrative to inform your approach as you engage with family members. By coming from a place of curiosity, you are more inclined to de-escalate emotions. This will help foster a more objective and balanced dialogue.

Declaring Intent

What intent might they be assigning to you? Be prepared to declare your intent. Make it clear and visible. Don’t assume they completely understand where you are coming from. Be direct without being abrasive.


A Balanced Approach: Sequence is Everything

1)    Listen deeply – seek to understand and reflect their emotions and concerns first.

2)    Speak persuasively, not abrasively.

3)    Convey your intent even when potentially defensive responses emerge. When defenses do emerge, go back to step one and repeat until the heat comes down a bit.

4)    Share options without shutting down contrary views.

5)    State your mind while making it safe for others to do the same.


Hang in there, you can do this:

Conflict is dynamic, which means its more art than science. So, learn to paint with a full set of colors and brushes. Be a constant learner, especially in the area of family dynamics. In a family enterprise, governance structures help us compartmentalize our negative emotions to some degree so we can solve problems, make decisions and move forward. Those are all helpful communication tools. The harder, more emotional conflicts, however, are the ones that can knock us off our feet and create anxiety and distress.  The anecdote is to practice resolving smaller, less intense emotional conflicts along the way. Build up a little muscle and you’ll have more grit when facing down the giants.  If you tend to be a chronic conflict avoider, find your courage. By leaning into this discomfort and practicing with the smaller tensions, you’ll gain self-confidence and objectivity over time.

Jeff Strese is an organizational development consultant.

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